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Chapter 1 - Meetings...

Copyright © 2001, 2003 Edward Lipsett


"Sachiko? Sachiko!

Sit down and eat some breakfast, young lady!"

Kitazawa Sachiko didn't even slow down at her mother's shout; as the screen door slammed shut behind her, her voice drifted back into the house.

"I'm late, Mom. Sorry! I'll see you tonight!"

Her mother - the number two mother in the family - turned back to the stove, where the tea kettle was just beginning to whistle.

"Always in such a hurry, isn't she?" asked Haruna, the number one mother, sitting at the table. "Just like you, at her age..."

"Okaa-san, please! I was a quiet girl, as you well know, and always followed your instructions carefully."

Haruna smiled, gratefully accepting the fresh hot tea from Arisu.

"You were certainly quiet at home... although I remember a certain young man at a trading firm, once, who you practically dragged home in a most unladylike manner..."

"Mother, you're impossible! And besides, he'd proposed to me and you know it."

"I think Sachi is growing up into a most presentable young woman. In addition to her excellent looks - thanks to you - she is also blessed with brains and the common sense to keep her mouth shut when it's needed."

Arisu sat down at the table with her, sipping her own cup of tea.

"I think it's about time we started thinking of a match for her, Okaa-san. She's 23 now, and should get her Master's in another year or two."

"No hurry, Arisu, no hurry. Although perhaps we should suggest taking a job back on Earth? Or maybe Daikoku..."

"Doris is a very nice planet, but... I mean, really..."

"Yes... it is a little, well, too frontier, isn't it?"

"Nonsense, Haruna!" broke in a man's voice. "It's the perfect place to raise a family, as you agreed so many years ago. And so it has proven. Where's my tea?"

Taguchi Sora walked through the kitchen and thumped down cross-legged on the tatami mats, in front of the low, Japanese-style table. At 74, he had established himself as the center of the home and knew what he wanted out of life - stability. Though he looked his age, he was still an active artisan in wood, and equally as active in the community. He immediately punched up the daily news on the monitor.

The tatami and table both, made of local woods, had streaks of bluish-gray boron fiber running through, catching the light in iridescence. While the veranda was open to catch the strong white light of Doris as it rose over the sea, the room was still shaded, the high, spacious ceiling and the wooden columns hidden in darkness by the radiance of the morning.

He thought back to his home, years ago, on Terra: a concrete box, basically, covered with pseudo-wood paneling on the inside and outside for appearance, but still a concrete box. Central heating and air conditioning were wonderful, no question, but he found that he preferred the open, spacious design he lived in now. Each day the wind greeted him with new scents, new tingles of mystery, tickling his nose and his fancy both. And since very few local insects had a taste for imported meat, namely human beings, they didn't even really need screens.

And they didn't need pseudo-wood paneling, either. The local boron-fiber wood was strong in its own right, but also was available in huge sections with skeletal supports that made it possible to build soaring and heart-achingly beautiful structures with little need for steel reinforcement. While he had never been much of an architect, he had always loved the feel of wood in his hands and under his tools, and he had invested years into making this enormous home as beautiful as it was functional, with countless carvings, built-in furniture, and alcoves.

As he was catching up on the local weather - about the only thing of importance that might happen until the next starship arrived - three young children ran through the room, screaming with laughter.

Sora stretched out his arm, dropping a barrier before the boy in front, who screeched to a halt just in time, arms windmilling wildly.

"Why so energetic so early in the morning, Dai? I have told you a hundred times not to run in this room!" He turned to the two girls that had been chasing him. "Tomi? Ran? What's your excuse?"

As the eldest, Daisuke stood forward, head up and shoulders back, standing as tall and straight as an 8-year old could, eyes focused on the wall somewhere behind Grandpa's head. Younger Tomi followed suit, standing behind him, while toddler Ran just stood, lower lip beginning to tremble and teddy bear dragging on the tatami.

"It's entirely my fault, grandfather. I encouraged them."

"Did you, now... Well, you have certainly grown up into an honest boy, haven't you? And what would be an appropriate punishment for running in here, do you think?"

Daisuke was silent, waiting for the axe to fall.

"Haruna!" called out Sora, turning his head toward the kitchen. "Feed these children some breakfast and tell them to go catch flutteries!"

He turned back to the children.

"Run along now. No, don't run. Walk along, right to the kitchen."

Daisuke and Tomi bowed, and Ran bobbed her head.

As they backed toward the kitchen, he called out again.

"Daisuke."

"Sir?" he raised his head and looked into Sora's eyes.

"Good morning, Daisuke."

The boy's smile was like the sun rising again, burning every trace of anger and fear from the room with the energy of childish exuberance.

"Good morning, grandfather!"

And with that, they were gone, leaving only the weather report mumbling in the background.

- - -

Sora wasn't the boy's grandfather, of course. He wasn't even related, actually, although he was the grandfather of the two girls.

He was, however, the head of the household, the patriarch responsible for guiding the family group, smoothing and adjusting problems, looking ahead to the future. It had been he who had brought them all here many years ago, although they had been a much smaller family then. It had been he who had fled to an unknown planet, sacrificing all he had built for decades in the determination to provide a better future for those he loved.

Today, while they certainly lacked many of the technological wonders available to his peers back in Nippon, they were well off and happy. There were few extended families of any type on Doris, and as far as he knew (and he had every reason to believe he knew perfectly) theirs was the largest, with at least ten children and grandchildren of various sizes and flavors, although goodness knows it was difficult to get them to stay still long enough to count properly...

He took another sip of tea, and his thoughts turned to his current project.

At the request of the new factor for Shungen Mercantiles, he was carving a standing screen, a byoubu. His sketch called for dragons and phoenixes rising into a starry sky, but the delicacy of the woodcarving would require very careful planning and execution. While the native wood was exceedingly strong in its tubular form, sheets and blocks tended to split easily along the grain, and detailed carving would require a considerable amount of fine, cross-grain work. If he only had a couple slabs of cherry, or kiri - he laughed. Might as well wish for a starship as a slab of earth-grown wood, all the way out here.

Hmmm.... maybe if the phoenix' wings arched upward, as if in preparation for a powerful downward sweep... he closed his eyes, tracing designs on the blackboard of his mind as, once again, children's laughter echoed through the room from the kitchen.

- - -

Sachiko raced down the rough-paved road, at least as much as you could on a 120-cc scooter. The canned hydrogen gave her plenty of cruising range, but the engine lacked acceleration. Which was fine with her, actually - she was in a hurry today, but normally just putting along was more her style, and there was hardly any traffic to worry about anyway. The whole planet only had, what, maybe 700,000 people? Sotaro, her 26-year old brother, wanted a new Tonda VR-H metal hydride turbo, but she couldn't see the point of all that speed. If you couldn't enjoy the scenery, what was the point of going in the first place?

Her destination was the International Xenobiological Research Institute, east of New Champlain proper and almost due south of her home.

The IXRI (pronounced iks-ri) had only been opened last year, and she had been one of the first to apply for a master's in xenobiology there. In spite of the various political problems IXRI had faced and finally overcome in its establishment, it was recognized as the best of its kind in Known Space, and had attracted some of the leading minds in the field. The office of Open Learning of the University of Guelph, which provided higher education for local people through distance education courses, had been happy to cooperate, and now she spent more time at IXRI than the University offices. Or home.

Being located on Doris, with its unique environmental mysteries and myriad of diverse crater biomes, no doubt helped attract researchers, though. She had spent many a day playing in - and later, studying - Little Pock Crater west of New Champlain. Unlike Big Pock, with its stinging insects, Little Pock had yet to reveal a single dangerous animal or plant. Covered with hundreds of varieties of flowering moss, all tended by a host of multicolored flutteries, it was one of the most popular picnic grounds and kindergarten day-trip sites on the planet. She remembered running over the mossy hillocks, scaring up clouds of flutteries like fountains of confetti swirling in the wind.

In her bag, safe and sound in its new plastic lamination, lay her new scuba-diving license. She had passed the final test with flying colors, and was ready to dive to see the totally different ecology under the floating mats of vegetation that covered most of the nearby sea for kilometers.

She couldn't wait to show it off to her classmates, and her teacher: she would be the second in the group to get one, although she had been swimming in these waters since she was a toddler.

A flash of color at the side of the road caught her eye, and she automatically slowed to take a better look.

A colony of Legobugs was on the move, hundreds of blocky, beetle-like iridescent insects clumped together into a variety of shapes, trundling down the margin. While each was only a centimeter or so long, they interlocked their bodies into strangely regular shapes - usually rectangular or hexagonal prisms - for defense.

She pulled her scooter off to the side of the road and settled down to watch, pulling out her aniki electronic aid and using the digicam to get a few good shots. There were eight structures and maybe several hundred motiles, stretched in a line about ten meters long. The biggest structure was, she carefully noted in the voice memo for the picture, a hexagonal shape measuring about eight centimeters across and four high.

She stepped into the brush and picked up a short stick.

Figuring that the queen would be in the biggest structure, she oriented her aniki carefully and triggered off a few camera flashes. With the Legobugs temporarily stunned, she used the stick to gently prod them, grinning as they began balling up around the end of the stick, perfectly willing to sacrifice themselves to protect the queen... and there she was, a 4-cm long beauty, surrounded by cohorts of attendants and continuing to lay eggs even as she was transported on the backs of her offspring.

She managed to snap another picture before the frantic Legobugs hurriedly rebuilt the roof, and then squatted back on her heels and watched them for a bit.

That one there must be the nursing chamber, she guessed, noting the "windows" in the sides where Legobugs were fanning air into the interior, presumably keeping the temperature down.

She walked toward the front of the column, careful not to step on any of the slowly-moving insects.

The line curved away from the road, and off into the underbrush.

She followed it, and found their destination only a few meters on: a fallen borowood tree, perhaps 15 centimeters in diameter, and already partially covered by leaves and other detritus. The perfect place for a new Legobug colony.

She aimed her aniki for another shot, and suddenly noticed the alarm lamp flashing.

Time for class! She was late!

With a despairing shriek she launched herself back toward her scooter, cursing silently to herself for forgetting the time. Again.

- - -

"I hear you got your diving certification, Sachiko. Congratulations!"

She lifted her head from the eyepiece and turned toward the door.

"Oh, good morning, Dr. Carlisle. I didn't hear you come in," she replied, pushing her chair back and standing up. "I'm fully certified now, and ready to go anytime!"

William Carlisle smiled back at her enthusiasm, blue eyes twinkling behind thick lenses. Unlike most younger people - he was only 30 - he preferred eyeglasses to remedial eye surgery, feeling that it suited his professorial mindset. He had even considered smoking a pipe, except, of course, that it was absurdly expensive way out here, and none of the local plants seemed to offer the same nicotine fix.

Not that he hadn't searched.

While researching the ecology of Doris, he also analyzed hundreds if not thousands of animal, mineral and vegetable specimens, and in the process of hunting for valuable materials he also searched for things he had a special interest in.

Like tobacco and spice substitutes.

He spent the best part of every day either here or in the field, immersed round-the-clock in the mystery of Doris. There was little to interest him at the faculty dormitory, and he was always happier peering into a microscope or reading a gas chromatograph than watching some silly drama on the wallscreen. That was part of the reason he'd chosen to come out here in the first place: he'd felt that research on Terra, even with its excellent research facilities and libraries, was sterile. He wanted to be in the field, getting his hands dirty and breathing the air. It had cost him a teaching slot at his university and a significant drop in pay, but he was happier now. Far happier.

And now that IXRI was up and running, in spite of determined opposition by American Interstellar Science Institute, he was in seventh heaven. The AISI was still talking about opening a separate xenobiology research center, but the Canadian government wasn't too interested in a new facility to compete with its own brand-new institute. He wasn't in the political arena, though, which meant he could enjoy the opportunity to do all the research he had always wanted to, with plenty of support. As a newly-established organization, IXRI was still receiving ample funding and brand-new equipment, and he and the other researchers were making the most of things before the rose-colored spectacles came off and the budget cutbacks began.

He had been a little leery of taking on doctoral candidates, but after getting to know them he had come to view their interaction as a pleasure rather than a chore. They lacked a lot of the academic foundation that he had gained back on earth, naturally, but they more than made up for it with enthusiasm and a native knowledge of the way the planet worked, because most of them had been here longer than he had.

And these four kids were unquestionably some of the brightest people on the planet.

"Great, Sachiko! Just in time for that field trip we've got planned in two weeks. You and Carol'll be able to check out the mat base with me."

Carol Manning, the other girl in the research seminar, had gotten her scuba certification in junior high school and could swim rings around any of them. Doctor Carlisle included.

"I can't wait, Doctor Carlisle! For years I've settled for sneaks and peeks, and finally I'm allowed to dive and explore the real thing!"

Her hands shot out, mimicking a dive into a pool, and her fingertips speared into the edge of the table.

"Ow!"

"Sachiko! Are you OK?"

She clenched the fingers of her left hand in her right, and stood, bent over like an arthritic old woman, her face screwed up in pain.

"Ita-ta-ta... that hurts, darn it! I'm sorry, Doctor Carlisle. I got a little excited, I guess... sorry. I'm fine, really."

He stepped up and reached out to take her injured hand in his own.

"Let me see, Sachiko..."

Caught unawares, she snatched her hand back out of his, and scuttled backward, almost collapsing into the chair.

No longer protecting her injured fingers, now her right hand curled around her left like a shield, a barrier.

Her face bright red, she stared at her feet, mumbling to her bemused teacher.

"I'm fine, Doctor Carlisle, honest. I... I'd better get back to my research now, I guess..."

He hesitated, embarrassed at having embarrassed her.

"I'm sorry, Sachiko. I forgot about your privacy shell. When I saw you were hurt, I just automatically reached out..."

His hands waved in the air, vaguely looking for a place to rest, unsure of what to do.

Sachiko gave a little grin, finally lifting her beet-red face to look him in the eyes.

"It's OK, really. I'm still not used to... touching... like that."

"What do you call it in Japanese? The privacy shell? You told me once, but I've forgotten again."

This time she smiled, obviously feeling more at ease.

"Yadogari. It means hermit crab, remember?"

"Ah, yes. Yadogari. I remembered the hermit crab image, of course. Fits perfectly when I see you retreating into your shell like that anytime someone tries to touch you," he mused, leaning on the edge of the desk. "I'm sorry, Sachiko. I'll be more careful next time."

"And just what will you be more careful about, Dr. Carlisle?" laughed a deep voice from the doorway. "Bothering our token Japanese again?"

William turned toward the doorway, pushing himself up off the desk.

"Oh, good morning Don."

"Good morning, Dr. Carlisle, Sachiko," nodded Don Laughing Water, a Canadian Flathead Indian tall enough to have to stoop to enter the room, and wide to match. Don would certainly have had no difficulty passing the physical for space travel, but people always had trouble believing he'd fit in the interface craft seat. He'd cut his own way into space, winning a scholarship to school as a poor and almost illiterate reservation orphan, and parlaying it into a ticket to Doris. He was brilliant, no question about it, but he had a serious problem when it came to accepting criticism - or discrimination.

"Sorry I was late," continued Don. "I had some mechanical trouble on the way in."

"I was late this morning, too, Don," admitted Sachiko. "A Legobug colony was on the move, and I stopped to watch for a bit. Forgot the time. But I got some good photos, and I found the new nest site so we can go anytime."

"Hey, great!" broke in Dr. Carlisle. "I got some new microcams that I've been dying to try out; a Legobug nest would be a great place to, uh, work the bugs out."

"Don! Make him stop!" wailed Sachiko, hiding her face in her hands. "I can't take it any more!"

"OK, OK, I'm sorry!" laughed Dr. Carlisle, holding his hands up in mock terror. "I'll try to restrain myself for the rest of the day."

He stood up and pulled out his PDA, clicking open the building monitor.

"I see Carol and Ponder are here as well. Let's gather down at the cafeteria for some coffee, and then off to our meeting room."

He called the other two via the PDA cellphone, and asked them to meet him at the cafeteria, then folded it up and slipped it back into his labcoat pocket.

"C'mon, Sachiko," called Don from the doorway. "Time for a coffee break!"

Dr. Carlisle led the way, followed by the student pair - with Don towering over diminutive Sachiko like a veritable giant. Don fell in behind her, as he usually did, protectively. Possessively.

"How big a colony was it?" asked Dr. Carlisle as he led the way toward the front hall. "Couple hundred?"

"I didn't get a chance to make a solid estimate, but at least that many. The queen was there, and if she was about in the middle of the group, as usual, then probably no more than about five hundred or so."

"We'll go have a better look, and install Dr. Carlisle's cameras," suggested Don. "I wish I'd seen them myself... I wanted to try a few scents and ultrasound and other signals on the motiles to see if they react the same way as motiles during normal work."

"Do you have any reason to think they'll act differently?" asked Dr. Carlisle, turning his head and slowing a bit as they entered the front hall.

"Well, yes, actually, there are a number of reports of them ignoring food while relocating the queen. I wanted to see if it was controlled by pheromones or some other signal system."

Dr. Carlisle stopped, apparently deep in thought. Behind him, Sachiko could see the stunning stained-glass window on the wall of the atrium, stretching up for three floors in an absolutely gorgeous picture of Doris floating in space, surrounded by the gods and creatures of both Terra's and Doris' own constellations. The window had been designed and executed by Pierre Renaud, the brilliant if somewhat eccentric French artist who had won honors throughout Known Space with the stunning fusion of traditional art techniques and modern themes.

She dropped her eyes a bit and savored the smooth woodtones of the statue to the right of the window - a life-size statue of a young girl with a burst of flutteries swirling around her upraised finger... she had been the model for it. While totally different in style and atmosphere from the immense stained-glass window, it had a warmth and friendliness that only natural wood could give. She would have loved it even if grandfather hadn't carved it.

She suddenly noticed the two men looking at her, and felt her face grow warm.

"I'm sorry... I was daydreaming..." she apologized, looking more at her own feet than their faces.

"Hey, don't worry about it," laughed Don, giving her a good-natured punch in the shoulder that knocked her back a bit. "You're more beautiful now than you were then, you know."

Her face grew even redder than before, and she stammered.

"I... It... Thank you... uh, Don."

Dr. Carlisle stepped closer, not quite standing between them but breaking the spell anyway.

"Look," he called, pointing ahead. "There's Carol, coming to greet us."

Carol Manning, a 38-year old mother of two, had made the decision to go back to school after her children became too old to need a full-time mom anymore. Her husband was RCMP, and rarely at home, and she had discovered a new satisfaction in learning that was deeper and more fulfilling than her tired university education had been so long ago.

"Good morning, Dr. Carlisle," she called out, holding the door to the cafeteria open with her foot while sipping a steaming cup of tea. "Hi, Don... Sachiko."

"Good morning, Carol," replied Dr. Carlisle, barely in the lead as Don and Sachiko chimed in with their own greetings. "You're up bright and early this morning, as usual. I wish you'd loan me some of that energy!"

"Well, Dr. Carlisle, once you have teenagers of your own who wake you up at the crack of dawn -- or before -- you'll sing a different tune, I think," Carol grinned.

As the two men stepped into the cafeteria, Carol fell in beside Sachiko, whispering "What's wrong? You're looking a bit quiet this morning."

"Nothing, really... it's all right," replied Sachiko, her blush fading fast as Don moved away from her. "Just a little problem..."

"You've really got it tough, haven't you, Sach? As if Don weren't enough by his own giant self, you've got that darned yadogari riding your back, too."

She sighed.

"Well, if there's anything I can do, don't hesitate to ask. I'm always available, you know that."

"Thanks, Carol. I... Thank you," said Sachiko, then stepped ahead toward the coffee machine. "Who's that over there with Dr. Colquhoun?"

At the other end of the cafeteria, Rufus Colquhoun, the director of IXRI, was sitting with a frail-looking black man dressed in an astonishingly garish robe of some kind, all purple and red. His skin was raven black against his snow-white hair, and his hands were whirling in complicated gestures as they spoke, flourishes of emotion and significance.

"That's Peter Tshwete, from the Azanian government. He's here trying to set up a visiting scientist arrangement to allow some of their people to study here. We're supposed to be nice to him," said Dr. Carlisle, holding out her favorite mug full of steaming black coffee.

"Might as well enjoy it while we can," he smiled. "Lord only knows when the budget'll run out, but until then we get to drink coffee as a 'research consumable.' Enjoy!"

"Thank you," she said, gratefully accepting the hot cup and turning toward the last member of the class, Ponder Henley, who has still not come up for air from behind the computer terminal.

"Ponder? Hello?"

She stepped closer and tapped on the top of the monitor.

"HQ to Ponder, come in! Good morning, Ponder!"

He looked up suddenly, his wispy hair falling over one eye but failing to obscure his brilliant blue eyes. The enfant terrible of the outfit, Ponder was only 19, but he already had his doctorate in extrasolar biology. While he was officially a student, he was actually enrolled here merely as a means to allow him free access to Doris' ecology without forcing the American Interstellar Science Institute - his employer - to publicly recognize IXRI's utility. He was rarely, if ever, seen away from the computer, and even in the field had a mobile computer that made hers look like a pocket calculator.

"Oh, hi, Sachiko. Hi, Dr. Carlisle, Don," he said, standing up and shaking his head to throw the hair out of his eyes in that characteristic gesture of his. Even though it always fell down again right away.

"Morning, Ponder," replied Dr. Carlisle. "Yes, I'd like to rough out the upcoming trip into the Mat. Especially now that Sachiko has her scuba license..."

"You passed! That's great, Sachiko!" said Carol, flashing her a delighted smile. "I knew you'd pass it on the first try! Now we can go diving together."

"Thanks, Carol. I can't wait to get my feet wet!"

As the chuckles died down, Dr. Carlisle opened up his own laptop, and clicked open the map of the Mat - the enormous 'forest' of interwoven vegetation stretching for hundreds of kilometers across the relatively shallow Sphagnum Bay south of Port Champlain.

Doris was still a relatively new world, to Man. While maps had been made and new colonies were flourishing, it still had a lot of surprises left to discover. The first settlers had been intrigued to discover that the animal life of Doris used a manganese-based compound for oxygen transport, and somewhat less enthused when they discovered that in most organisms here a methylated magnesium compound was common - which meant the majority of local flora and fauna were toxic without processing. While a number of local plants had been found to be not only edible but indeed cash crops, there was a violent ecological conflict under way as Terran plants invaded the local biomes.

The Mat was one such biome, still almost entirely Terra Incognita. The enormous bay south of Port Champlain had been called Sphagnum Bay after the floating islands of vegetation, so similar to the floating sphagnum moss islands of northeastern Canada. Home to a stunning variety of plants and animals, these floating beds were pierced through by enormous bamboo-like trees rooted on the ocean floor, extending downward to depths of up to a kilometer. Only the incredible strength of the boron fiber in the wood made it possible, but IRXI was only just beginning to reveal the secrets of the ecology.

Dr. Carlisle was recognized as one of the foremost researchers at IXRI, and had developed his own theories of the ecological system on Doris... and how it was affected by Man.

"As you all know, I have been investigating metal transfers in the local ecology," explained Dr. Carlisle. A ghostly picture of an underwater forest appeared on his notebook screen.

"This is a video sequence from a swimbot I ran a few months ago. I wanted to get a look at the speartrees holding up the sphagnum mats, and remoconned the swimbot along a few trees, top to bottom, over a period of a few days."

On the screen, a spherical shape appeared, making the trunk look like an anaconda that had swallowed a basketball by mistake.

"As you can see, there are no obvious demarcations between the trunk and this swelling," continued Dr. Carlisle. "I first thought it might be some sort of parasitic growth, but video examination of other speartree trunks showed similar growths on all mature specimens, and at about the same depth - 10 to 15 meters."

He looked around at the four of them.

"I want to know what these things are. Anyone have any ideas?"

Ponder Henley immediately spoke up, confident in his interpretation of the facts even with so little information to base his judgment on.

"Obviously a flotation device," he stated. "No other reason for having them so large. The trunk diameter at that depth should be about a meter and a half, which means those swellings are about three meters in diameter. Absolutely no reason for them to be that large otherwise."

"Hmmm... that's certainly one possibility, Ponder," admitted Dr. Carlisle. "Any other ideas?"

Suddenly, Sachiko's aniki emitted a piercing wail - the emergency notification. It could only be triggered by a very few people: her family and the RCMP (in the event of a solar flare warning). And since there were no other alarms blaring, that meant...

She almost ran from the room, pulling her aniki from her belt sheath even as she ran. Navigating between the chairs to the door, she checked the screen and saw it was from home. From her mother, Reiya.

"Mother? Yes, I'm here?" she spoke into the aniki, anticipating the worst as the videoscreen powered up. "What is it? What happened?"

Her mother appeared, tears yet wet on her cheeks.

"Sachiko. It's grandmother... she's... she suddenly collapsed. The ambulance has taken her to St. Ekaterina and we're on the way there now. Grandfather is with her now."

Sachiko stopped breathing, her hand over her mouth, eyes wide.

"Mother! Will she... will she be all right?"

"We don't know Sachiko, nobody knows. The paramedic said her heart had stopped and they would start emergency procedures in transit, but... Sachiko, please, meet me at the hospital right away!"

"I'll be right there! It's only a few minutes from here!"

She snapped the aniki shut and turned, ready to race for the parking lot, only to stop just short of bumping into Dr. Carlisle.

"Is anything wrong, Sachiko? You're white as a sheet!"

"Grandmother has had a heart attack... I have to get to St. Ekaterina of Olympos Mons Hospital at once! I'm sorry, I'll..."

"Sachiko, you're in no condition to drive," broke in Dr. Carlisle. "I'll take you in my car, come on."

She only nodded, almost in shock at the sudden turn of events, and meekly followed him to the parking lot.

With a murmured comment to Dr. Carlisle, Carol got in next to her, and silently sat with her as she stared, without seeing a thing, out the window.

Dr. Carlisle goosed the H-powered car out of the parking lot as fast as its engine would go, pushing the limit even though metal hydride cars never could quite get the acceleration of gasoline engines.

The Hospital was only a few minutes away, though it seemed an eternity of silence and fear to Sachiko. Carol said nothing, exchanging looks with Dr. Carlisle through the rearview mirror as he drove.

Sachiko was out the door and at the reception desk before the car had even come to a stop in front of the door, Carol flanking her like a bodyguard.

A Japanese youth was standing next the reception counter, and Sachiko ran up to him immediately.

"Sotaro-san! Obaasama wa?"

"Matteta yo, Sachiko. Hayaku koi!" he clipped out, and started off down a corridor immediately, Sachiko in tow.

Bemused, Carol could only stand and wait for Dr. Carlisle to arrive, puffing after a trot from the parking lot. She turned to the receptionist.

"Excuse me, do you know who that was?"

"I believe that was one of Ms. Taguchi's sons," replied to receptionist absently, pencil between her teeth as she scrolled through screens and screens of data. "She's in the emergency room now. Second floor; follow the green dashes on the floor. Excuse me."

"Well, Saint Ekaterina may well be the saint of sick children, but she seems to be pretty busy right now, doesn't she?" commented Dr. Carlisle as they walked down the corridor. "They really need a bigger staff here... Dr. Weiss said every time there's a solar flare, it means three or four days of OT for everyone until the new arrivals are stabilized."

"Doris is still pretty rough-cut, isn't it?" agreed Carol. "Still, I prefer it to the mechanized sterility of earth... Let's take the stairs, this elevator takes forever."

He nodded his assent, and they walked up their steps together, finding the dashed green line awaiting them at the top.

"The elevator's left, so we want to go right. Right?"

"Right, Dr. Carlisle. After you."

The waiting room in front of Emergency already had about a dozen people in it, and Sachiko was right in the middle of the group, speaking urgently in Japanese to an elderly man who was sitting smack in front of the Emergency Room door, staring fixedly at it.

As they approached, she looked up and recognized them. She spoke another word or two to the man - her father? Grandfather? - and came over.

"Thank you for driving me here, Dr. Carlisle. And Carol, thank you. You were right... I shouldn't have driven by myself."

"How is your grandmother?" asked Dr. Carlisle. "Any word?"

"We don't know... the paramedic said it was a cerebral hemorrhage, not a heart attack. But she's been in there for about 20 minutes now..."

Her voice trailed off. Her arms were crossed in front of her chest, gripping her own biceps, rubbing up and down occasionally.

An older woman came over, her make-up a mess but still smiling valiantly.

"Hello, I'm Sachiko's mother, Kitazawa Reiya. You must be Dr. Carlisle. Thank you so much for driving Sachiko out here in such a rush."

"No, really it was the least I could do," he said, bowing awkwardly. "I hope everything will be all right."

"Thank you. So do we all," she replied, then turned toward Carol. "And you are?"

"I'm Carol Manning, Sachiko's classmate. If there's anything we can do, please don't hesitate to ask."

"Yes, thank you... If you'll excuse us..."

She gently touched Sachiko's shoulder - Dr. Carlisle and Carol exchanged astonished glances at the physical contact - and the two of them walked back toward the waiting crowd of family members.

It was a brush-off, no doubt about it.

They walked slowly back toward the elevator, mulling, and remained silent as the cage descended, wrapped in an atmosphere that smelled faintly of antiseptic hope and tired expectations. As the doors opened, they headed toward the parking lot, still silent.

Dr. Carlisle unlocked his car door and got in, crossing his arms, head cocked at an angle. He turned to Carol as she climbed in the other door.

"I don't think I understand this yadogari bit yet, Carol... Heck, I don't even understand whether that was her grandfather or not!"

"I don't either, Dr. Carlisle, but it's pretty clear she's quite upset by it all anyway," said Carol, watching a pair of flutteries whirling around each other over the hot parking lot. "She told me once before that she wasn't even related to her 'grandfather' and 'grandmother,' and that the terms were used sort of like the head of the household... I don't really know much about extended families, I'm afraid. One husband's enough for me."

Dr. Carlisle chuckled. "Every man's dream, right? Living in a harem... Well, I do know the Japanese extended family has nothing to do with that at all. Oh, I suppose they have their adulterers, like any society, but basically it is a collection of singles or married couples in a sort of corporate relationship. As I understand it - academically, you understand - partner-sharing is less common than in the West."

Carol turned to face him, suddenly serious.

"Let's go home, Dr. Carlisle. I need to spend some time with my own family, suddenly."

"Mmmm.... Let's." He turned his attention to the car, reaching for the ignition, and stopped suddenly in confusion. "Now where in the hell did I put my keys!?"

Finally, he found them still hanging from the door lock.

- - - - -

Chapter 2

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